How One Woman is Helping Young Aboriginals Aging Out of Foster Care

As at-risk youth face losing all government support at 19, Barbara Lawson has found a different way to help Aboriginal children in B.C.'s foster care system.  

March 2, 2017

By Amy O'Brian / Photo: Carlo Ricci

Barbara Lawson likens herself to a single mother of 16 children. Her phone is always on, ready for a 3 a.m. call from a stranded teenager. At 7 a.m., she can often be found knocking on doors to rouse heavy sleepers so they’re not late for work or school. In the evenings, you might find her making multiple lasagnas or a giant pot of chicken noodle soup to feed her brood.

Lawson’s kids, as she calls them—who are between the ages of 16 and 24—have grown up in government care, bouncing between homes, many floundering as they try to navigate their way into adulthood without parents or close family. On their 19th birthdays, kids in care lose all of their supports, including housing. They can easily end up homeless with no family to turn to for help—which is where Lawson steps in. “I don’t ever want these kids to have no one to call,” she says. “I’m that bridge to keep them safe, but also there to help them when they need it.”

The Aboriginal Youth Mentorship and Housing program—provided by Lu’ma Native Housing Society—started in early 2014 with five or six kids. Lawson joined soon after as the program manager. She now has 20 young people who regularly attend the Monday- and Wednesday-night dinners and workshops at the Aboriginal Children’s Village in East Vancouver. Some of them aren’t technically in the program anymore, but they come because they have a younger sibling who attends or simply because they like the food and the sense of belonging. They cook together, eat together, notice who’s missing, and catch up. The older participants share their stumbles and successes with the younger ones, who are still in government care and, therefore, still receiving food and housing.

Barbara Lawson (Photo: Carlo Ricci.)

Nearly half of young people who age out of government care will be on income assistance six months after their 19th birthday. Lawson is there—before and after that milestone—to give them a gentle nudge toward finding a job or applying for school. She helps them navigate things like MSP and job applications, and connects them with other supports. She also teaches them how to make healthy meals, loads their Compass cards and sources running shoes so they can exercise regularly.

“We have this unreasonable expectation that kids leaving foster care can do it all on their own,” says Kris Archie, who runs the Youth Homelessness Initiative at the Vancouver Foundation.

Only the worst outcomes make the news: the suicides and overdoses, of which there are too many. But Archie says most of these young people are bright, funny and complex, and they’re going through the same tumultuous times that nearly everyone in their late teens and
early 20s goes through, but without family support.

“The only thing you hear about them is what you see on the news or hear on the radio—it’s that they’re bad and troublesome and somehow not deserving of love and attention, and aren’t artistic and creative,” Archie says. “The reality is that they are the reason I feel so much joy in my work.”

Archie, Lawson and thousands of other British Columbians are calling for continued support for young people beyond the age of 19. More than 17,000 people have signed a petition asking that young people receive consistent financial support until the age of 25 so they can have secure housing and money for transit and food while they attend school and find work. The petition also advocates for the idea that young people aging out of foster care should be able to count on long-term relationships with caring adults.

When Lawson took the mentorship job, she knew it wouldn’t be a temporary gig. There were going to be rough patches and missteps, but walking away wasn’t an option. So she introduced the kids to her 21-year-old daughter, as well as her 78-year-old mother, who talked to them about her time in residential school. Some of the young people now call Lawson’s mother Grandma and travel to Tsawwassen to have dinner with her and clean her house. “These relationships go on for a lifetime,” Lawson says.

At the Aboriginal Children’s Village—which incorporates housing units on the top floors and bright offices and gathering spaces at ground level—visitors pass between totem poles to enter. Aboriginal culture is threaded throughout the mentorship program, Lawson says, with gentle teachings and guidance. Guest speakers are occasionally invited to the weekly dinners.

“I don’t ever want these kids to have no one to call.”

One recent guest was Melanie Mark, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, who spent time in foster care and later worked with Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the former representative for children and youth in B.C.

“We can’t ignore the variable of race in all of this,” she says during an interview at her Commercial Drive constituency office. “Aboriginal leaders are saying they should have a say in the determination of their children. They’re saying, ‘You’ve done a bad job of kidnapping our kids, of scooping up our children, of trying to kill the Indian in the child. That model didn’t work.’”

Roughly 60 percent of youth in government care in this province are Aboriginal. As high as that figure is, it’s not a statistic Kris Archie chooses to broadcast in interviews or Vancouver Foundation reports.

“To talk about that stat without acknowledging that history means that we perpetuate the idea that Aboriginal people aren’t capable of taking care of their own kids,” she says. “I think if there’s a desire to highlight the majority of Aboriginal children in foster care, it requires a look at the systemic racism that is perpetuated by the child welfare system that goes back to residential schools, that is connected to the colonization that continues to impact communities here in this province.”

The Aboriginal Children’s Village is the creation of Aboriginal leaders who wanted children in care to have some permanence and stability in their lives. One of the goals was to build community around the child, to create a sense of support and understanding, even if mistakes are made or if the young person isn’t interested in playing what Melanie Mark calls the “eligibility game” for supports and services.

“Rigid rules for people who come from very vulnerable backgrounds don’t help them reach success,” Mark says. “They have already experienced the harshest consequence of maltreatment or neglect or abuse or what have you. So placing those conditions is not interpreted as support. It feels punitive.”

Nobody gets kicked out of Barbara Lawson’s mentorship program.

Weekly family-style dinners help give young people in care some permanence and stability in their lives. (Photo: Ash Tanasiychuk.)

When a few of the young people started partying too much last summer, Lawson bought them gym passes and told them she had ways of finding out how often they were going. “We pull out fitness all the time when addiction comes up,” she says. If someone quits their job or drops out of school, she helps them set a new goal. If they want to leave their living arrangement, she helps them determine whether it’s necessary and what the alternatives are.

As of November, five of Lawson’s kids were enrolled in college and six were in jobs they were hoping to keep long-term. One young woman said she was looking into architecture prerequisites after being inspired by the architect of the Aboriginal Children’s Village, Patrick Stewart, who was also a foster child.

The mentorship program gets no provincial funding. Instead, Lawson depends on grants and foundations to cover salaries and the youths’ transit passes, weekly meals, outings, gym passes and other expenses. “Those costs are nothing compared to the homelessness, addictions, justice costs, hospital stays and income assistance that would result [without the program],” Lawson says.

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